Lakewood kids get a fair education, commissioner rules. Families vow to appeal decision. The state’s acting education commissioner has ruled that Lakewood public school students are getting a thorough and efficient education and that the state school funding formula is not unconstitutional as it relates to the district. Friday’s decision ends the administrative phase of a case brought seven years ago on behalf of public school families, but allows it to proceed to the Appellate Division of state Superior Court and, their lawyer hopes, the state Supreme Court.
“The Commissioner acknowledged Lakewood’s educational shortcomings but pointed out that the deficiencies do not rise to the level of unconstitutional,” Friday’s decision by acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan states. “Further, the SFRA is constitutional as applied to Lakewood.”
The decision, rendered by Allen-McMillan in what’s known as the Alcantara v. Hespe case, will be appealed, said Arthur Lang, the Lakewood Public Schools math teacher and attorney who in 2014 filed the original petition to then-Education Commissioner David Hespe on behalf of a group of Lakewood Public Schools parents, including Leonor Alcantara.
While the decision did not go the petitioners’ way, it nonetheless allows Lang to file an appeal with the Appellate Division of state Superior Court. Depending which way that appeal goes, Lang fully expects that either he or his adversaries at the state Department of Education will then appeal the case to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, which then will have the truly final say on whether Lakewood Public Schools and the state aid formula are meeting their obligation under the state constitution.
“We got what we needed,” Lang said Monday, referring to a decision that now allows him to take the case out of the administrative law system.
The acting commissioner’s decision was in response to a March 1 ruling by Administrative Law Judge Susan Scarola. In that decision, Scarola sided with the petitioners in finding that the district, “cannot provide a thorough and efficient education to its public school students.” But she stopped short of granting the petitioners’ request to declare the formula, which is contained in the School Funding Reform Act, or SFRA, was unconstitutional as it applied to Lakewood.
“Upon review, the Commissioner…disagreed with the ALJ’s determination that Lakewood is not providing its students with T&E, but agreed that petitioners have failed to show that the SFRA is responsible for Lakewood’s deficiencies,” Friday’s decision stated.
Allen-McMillan’s decision Friday essentially agreed with education department lawyers, who in an April 13 letter had urged her to reject the judge’s finding that students were not receiving a thorough and efficient education, even though the department acknowledged that “there are deficiencies, (but) they are being addressed and progress is being made, even if it is at a slower pace than Petitioner would like to see.”
Whether the funding formula is constitutional or not, few would disagree that it fails to adequately addresses Lakewood’s unique student population, which includes about 40,000 school-age children who are members of the township’s Orthodox Jewish community enrolled in private yeshivas. Only about 6,400 students are enrolled in Lakewood’s public schools.
While most of the district’s state aid is based on public school enrollment, state law requires districts to pay the transportation and special education costs for private school students as well as their public school counterparts.
With virtually all of Lakewood’s yeshiva students riding buses and many enrolled in special education programs, the formula means that every year the district is faced with steep transportation and special education costs not nearly offset by state aid. For example, Lakewood’s private school transportation costs alone last year amounted to 12% of the district’s entire $200 million school budget.
The situation has led to annual budget deficits only filled through special state appropriations plus education department loans that have left the district under mounting debt. The loans have allowed the district to cover annual costs and make gradual improvements in student performance and outcomes, which Allen-McMillan cited in her decision. But Lang and others insist that the growing debt burden cannot be sustained.
Michael Inzelbuch, the board attorney for the Lakewood Board of Education and a spokesman for the district, is among those who agree that the current funding situation cannot go on, and that the state funding formula must be amended to include a provision, or “carve out,” taking into account Lakewood’s unique ratio of private to public school students.
But he welcomed the acting commissioner’s decision on Friday as an acknowledgement that the district has managed to provide a thorough and efficient education despite the funding formula.
“Can we do better? Yes,” said Inzelbuch. But, he added, “We all agree, there has to be a carve-out or legislation amending this.”
“But neither the district nor the education department believes declaring the formula unconstitutional is the way to do that.”
But Lang thinks it may be the only way. After years of inaction by lawmakers on the issue — he filed the petition in 2014, after all, and there’s still no carve-out in the formula for Lakewood — the teacher and part-time lawyer believes it will take a ruling by the state Supreme Court striking down the funding law, or ordering a change to account for Lakewood, compelling lawmakers to act.
So, Lang said he was glad that the acting commissioner issued her decision on Friday, even if only to move the case out of the administrative law process and closer to a ruling by the state’s highest court. News Source
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